The Beat Generation was born in a 1948 conversation between writers Jack Kerouac, later known for his 1957 book, On the Road, and John Clellon Holmes. Its practitioners were called “beats” or beatniks, a mash-up of Sputnik and the Beat Generation.

English: Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palu...

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was defined in a November 16, 1952 article by Holmes published in The New York Times Magazine called, “This Is the Beat Generation,” a generation, not unlike “The Lost Generation” after World War I, that was a disaffected, post-World War II group of young people who were “bright, level and realistic” who had

“…lost the future. For, ever since they were old enough to imagine one, that has been in jeopardy…”

“…more than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used.”

“…brought up during the collective bad circumstances of a dreary depression, weaned during the collective uprooting of a global war, they distrust collectivity…”

“Their brothers, husbands, fathers or boyfriends turned up dead one day at the other end of a telegram.”          

It was known for its followers’ use of drugs, like marijuana and heroin, loosened sexual behavior, and a restless aimlessness characterized by refusing to fit into the standard corporate work world, in favor of self-defined creative pursuits like poetry, music and writing.

Holmes article described adults’ reaction to the drugs and flagrant sexuality of the young beats,

“The shock that older people feel at the sight of this Beat Generation is, at its deepest level, not so much repugnance at the facts, as it is distress at the the attitudes which move it.”

And, he predicts their reaction,

“Though worried by this distress, they most often argue or legislate in terms of the facts rather than the attitudes.”

Though the War on Drugs wasn’t launched until June, 1971, by President Nixon, in an attempt to interdict drugs coming into the U.S., a year after marijuana was added to the list of Controlled Substances,  it had its origins with the Beat Generation.

The movement started at Columbia University, with discussions between, among others, Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, who wrote the 1956 book, Howl.

Then, it continued in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and migrated to San Francisco, after Ginsburg moved there in 1954. The “beats” formed the core of the hippie movement in the early 1960s.

By 1958, tourists could take buses to see beatniks in North Beach, then characterized as sandal-wearing, marijuana-smoking, goatee-bearded, bongo-drumming men spouting poems that made no sense but were delivered in a staccato beat.

In 1959, the iconic beatnik image was introduced in the form of Maynard Krebs, as a character on the television show, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” which ran until 1963.

Ginsberg believed that despite the tightening of laws around drugs and aimlessness that characterized beatniks for so long, society was better for their existence.

In 1982, he summarized the benefits he thought the “beats” had brought us:

  • Sexual liberation, including for gays
  • A loosening of censorship, especially around sexually explicit material
  • An exposure to drugs that made them less mysterious
  • Merging rhythm and blues and rock and roll
  • Attention to the environment
  • A willingness to challenge the military-industrial complex
  • Respect for idiosyncrasy over conformity
  • Appreciation for indigenous people.

Maynard Krebs was busy.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”


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